Last May saw an opportunity to get some education under my belt, not motivated by wine for its own sake nor the location, Vera de Estenas, but rather more because I have always instinctively felt corks are best for wine bottles.....here was an opportunity to learn more about the subject.
As it turned out out a very small group met up on a thundery day, to meet with Adolfo Miravet Segarro. Adolfo is a fully qualified forestry operative who just happens to be responsible for Espadan Corks, a company producing corks in the Sierra d´Espadan, in Castellon Province and which very shortly will become a DO Corchos de Valencia in its own right.
I was a bit wary , will this be too technical and scientific ( not my best subject at school ) ? However the presentation by Adolfo, despite being his Doctoral Thesis turned out to be absolutely fascinating and educational!
When I say I have instinctively felt cork is best for wine bottles it was based simply on the premise that conservatively I have pulled several thousand over the last 35 years, have only ever had two corked bottles in the house and over the same period can probably count on the fingers of two hands when I have complained a wine was corked! ( Yes I may have been lucky!) Yes old corks crumble but old wines need decanting anyway! Muslin solves that problem!
I do not like plastic corks, tolerating them in wines expected to be drunk within the year, and hate screw top bottles. I have always understood that cork allowed wine to breathe, could be replaced after a few years for expensive , long aged wines including Claret and Champagne, and from an environmental point of view the cork forests of Portugal were the summer residence of the robin.If cork production ceased and the trees were replaced by a new agriculture then there would be no more robins on spades in British gardens looking over newly turned ground and Xmas cards would become more obscure!
On the other hand, plastic does not allow wine to breathe, it is the ultimate stopper! Plastic also sits inside the metal screw-top and even with my limited knowledge of chemistry alcohol dissolves plastic allowing horrible things into the wine.
I was not quite prepared for the complete justifacation of cork which was about to emerge!
As always when you visit Vera De Estenas it commences with a visit to the vineyards, this year more than ever plagued by rabbits, not the local variety but one which particularly likes the new green shoots! This year had seen the vines bud early, the warmth and rain producing early leaves and pre-flowering bunches....and of course early thunderstorms with hail which has burnt this growth! Fortunately there was subsequent growth and to me this looked the most like the 2008 vintage, but with a long way to go.
Back to the bodega and Adolfo commenced his presentation. The company are entirely dedicated to ecological and environmental aspects. The cork oak grows areas in very specific and not just Portugal. I was surprised to learn from the map of the Mediterrean that this includes Southern Spain, Extramadura as well as the Portuguese equivalent, Morroco, Cataluña, Southern France, parts of Italy, Sicily and Corsica.....and then Castellon!
In the Sierra Espada, close to Segorbe and Almedijar the cork forests are quite extensive. They sit in a National Park and sustain all sorts of agriculture not least of which is corks, but also the acorns are fed to pigs, if the wild boar don´t get them first! Cattle also live here, but predominantly pigs are the principle beneficiarys of trees planted at a ratio of about 600 to the hectare.
The trees need to be almost 100 years old to produce viable corks from the bark. At about 60 years old they are first stripped, then around 12 years later a second harvest is removed. But it is not for roughly another 12 years that the bark produces it´s third harvest with sufficient quality to be used in wine bottles and then there is another 12 year wait for the next harvest! Cork is cut by horizantal and vertical cuts to remove huge peices ( see photographs) from which corks can be later extracted.